Washington Capitals cling to playoff spot despite average results

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals.

Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Perhaps the most grateful of all teams in the NHL’s easy going Eastern Conference is the Washington Capitals. Despite going 3-3-4 in their last ten games, including a 2-1 Sunday shootout loss to the lowly Buffalo Sabres, the Caps continue to hold down second place in the Metropolitan Division.

The Caps have won four of their last twelve games, however, despite this current bout of unexceptional play, the postseason remains a realistic objective. In the Western Conference, winning four of twelve would almost certainly spell disaster, but that’s not really the Caps’ problem.

As it stands, if the playoffs were to begin today, the Capitals would face arch nemesis the New York Rangers in the first round. Perhaps, that is punishment enough for recent lack-luster performances.

After starting 2013-14 where he left off last season – scoring on a per game basis – Caps captain and franchise face Alex Ovechkin has cooled considerably, scoring two goals over the last two weeks. And if you haven’t seen it yet, here is how he plays defence:

Head coach Adam Oates’s squad is sitting in the playoffs, albeit, not comfortably. The club’s second overall placement in the slow-starting Metropolitan Division is cushioned by a minuscule one-point advantage over the fourth place Philadelphia Flyers. Furthermore, the fifth place New Jersey Devils – who earned one point in a shootout loss to Toronto last night – are only three points back of the Caps. In other words, they may be clinging to second place now but another inconsistent ten game span could see them plummet downward in the standings quickly.

The Washington Capitals are a curious club. They appear to possess several of the elements required to achieve success. Sniper Alex Ovechkin serves as one of the game’s ultimate scoring talents. Leading scorer Nicklas Backstrom provides a stellar two-way game down the middle while tallying more than a point per game this season.

The club’s defence is versatile with offensive weapon Mike Green and durable shutdown pairing John Carlson and Karl Alzner. The team’s top three defenders are surrounded by a blend of mobility and toughness in secondary roles.

At forward, depth players Joel Ward, Mikhail Grabovski, Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Tom Wilson, Jason Chimera, and Marcus Johansson provide a mixture of speed, grit, and secondary offence. Yet, for whatever reason, the Caps’ season so far suggests a trip to the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs will be secured on one of the last few days of the season, if at all.

Then there is the 2014 Winter Olympics. Washington’s top players will be headed to Sochi next month. Insert distraction. Ovechkin and Backstrom will play key roles with Russia and Sweden, respectively. The contrast between the heightened expectations of the Olympics and the bland marathon that features a Sunday game against Buffalo amid a six-and-a-half month NHL regular season creates interesting team output this time of year.

The Caps are still in good shape. This recent stretch of subpar hockey hasn’t hurt them, it has only hindered their ability to secure a comfortable playoff positioning. But be careful Adam Oates and team. The Toronto Maple Leafs were similarly lollygagging in a playoff spot until finally, inability to win consistently caught up with them. What was once a comfortable grip on a playoff birth has become a guaranteed dog fight the rest of the way for Toronto. The Caps appear to have regressed to a similar situation moving forward.